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There might be more love for The Terror (1963) if cinephiles were able to think of it as less of a Roger Corman film and more of a Jack Nicholson film. The job came Nicholson's way relatively early in his career, post The Cry Baby Killer (1958) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) but well before his emergence as a standard bearer for New Hollywood with the success of Easy Rider (1969). Nicholson's performance in The Terror has drawn more than its share of brickbats ("hopelessly lost" crowed biographer Patrick McGilligan) but it's actually acceptable (if unexceptional) work, especially given the piecemeal nature of the project, with its domino line of directors calling the shots, and an impromptu script that trowels on outmoded vernacular to give the proceedings the stamp of antiquity. The chief complaint lodged against Nicholson's acting is that his patented disaffection clashes with the old school charm of top-billed Boris Karloff (in one of his last fully ambulatory performances). While that observation is spot on, the criticism could be applied against a number of classic films made in the gloaming of Hollywood's studio system. James Dean was at odds in and out of character with on-screen father Raymond Massey in East of Eden (1955), as was Marlon Brando with his classically trained Julius Caesar (1953) co-stars. While the Jack Nicholson of The Terror hasn't quite matured or coalesced yet into the magnetic leading man of Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), his signature Nicholson-isms are all present and accounted for, from the Devil-may-care flatness of his delivery to the reptilian gaze that Stanley Kubrick would take to its hellish apotheosis in the actor's return to the horror genre in The Shining (1980).
Set during the Napoleonic Wars (which resulted in the Little Corsican gaining control of western and central Europe), The Terror's protagonist and sole voice of normalcy is young lieutenant André Duvalier (Nicholson), to whom we are introduced as he wanders a stretch of foreboding Baltic beachhead after becoming separated from his regiment. His compass spinning out of control, Duvalier is aided and then ditched by a mysterious young woman (Sandra Knight, Nicholson's wife at the time) named Helene, taken in by an enigmatic crone (Dorothy Neumann) and sent by a laryngitic half-wit (Jonathan Haze) to the crumbling schloss of secretive Baron Von Leppe (Karloff).
The subsequent pastiche of Ann Radcliff, Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Chandler that is The Terror was variously directed by Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill and Monte Hellman, with additional footage shot by Dennis Jakob and purportedly even Nicholson himself for one day. Leftover sets were utilized from Corman's The Premature Burial (1962) and The Raven (1963) and Corman was still shooting scenes when The Haunted Palace (1963) went into production. To pad the running time, Corman relied heavily on location footage grabbed in a park in Santa Barbara and along the dramatic coastlines of Big Sur and Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as stock footage from House of Usher (1960) and even the recycling of footage from The Terror itself!
Because every chef who had his fingers in the batter modified the scenario somewhat, The Terror is often branded as incomprehensible but that tireless canard is likely reflective more of copycat criticism than the film's actual merits. The Terror follows a labyrinthine but not unfathomable narrative arc as it onion peels its way towards its grim resolution but anyone making the sincere cry of "incomprehensible!" might as well confess they've never seen a ghost story before. With its ad hoc assembly the work of some dozen hands and the story no more contradictory than the average nightmare, The Terror pushes the art of collaboration towards the mystical realm of table tilting, with the finished product reflecting less a unified vision than an unconscious collective will.
Yet take away its Gothic blandishments and Freudian curlicues and The Terror is very much a detective story, with Duvalier knocking down doors like a born gumshoe as he trails the elusive Helene through a grapevine of interested but less than candid parties. "I'll ask the questions," Duvalier informs shifty family retainer Stefan (Corman regular Dick Miller), who of course knows more than he lets on about past events that have shaped the present mystery. With his insatiable curiosity and disdain for liars, Duvalier is an obvious predecessor to Jake Gittes, the shady but resolute private dick Nicholson played so indelibly in Chinatown and somewhat less indelibly in its belated follow-up, The Two Jakes (1990).
As the mendacious Baron von Leppe, Boris Karloff could be seen as a pencil study for the hateful Noah Cross character played by John Huston in Chinatown; both films have protagonist and antagonist locking antlers over a table of food. Chinatown's incest-driven "She's my sister/She's my daughter" dialectic is anticipated here by Sandra Knight's dual-natured Helene/Ilsa; both films share a water motif as well as a downbeat ending that finds their detective heroes unable, for all their savvy, to save the women they have come to love. That the much-lauded Chinatown might possibly have been informed in some small way by Corman's "super quickie" (to quote British critic Alan Frank) is not so far fetched. Chinatown scenarist Robert Towne had written (and appeared) in Corman's The Last Woman on Earth (1960) and provided the script for Corman's masterful The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) a decade earlier. Finally, it's worth noting that, when producer Robert Evans and director Roman Polanski read Towne's first draft for Chinatown, they both considered the script - you guessed it - incomprehensible.
Producer: Roger Corman
Director: Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Leo Gordon, Jack Hill
Cinematography: John Nicholaus
Film Editing: Stuart O'Brien
Assistant Editor: Donald Shebib
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Costume Design: Marjorie Corso
Music: Ronald Stein, Les Baxter
Cast: Boris Karloff (Baron von Leppe), Jack Nicholson (André Duvalier), Sandra Knight (Helene), Dick Miller (Stefan), Dorothy Neumann (Caterina), Jonathan Haze (Gustaf).
by Richard Harland Smith